Biotech Bullies

The global battle over genetically engineered (GE) foods has reached a

new level of intensity. While in Europe and Asia strong resistance

continues, and in Africa and Latin America a debate has begun, in

North America the gene-foods issue has moved from being a back-burner

item for most people to a major topic in the media. Under attack on

all sides, frustrated by growing global marketplace and activist

opposition, agbiotech corporations and the White House have been

forced to go on the offensive.

Regulatory Arrogance On January 17, the FDA announced a set of highly

controversial proposed regulations on genetically engineered foods and

crops. The regulations, disregarding the overwhelming sentiment of

consumers, require neither pre-market safety testing nor labeling–nor

do they require biotech corporations to assume financial liability for

damage to public health and the environment. Nearing the close of the

public comment period on May 3, the FDA had already received over

100,000 negative comments from irate consumers (including nearly

30,000 comments from the Organic Consumers Association), but

Washington insiders predict that the Bush administration will ignore

this avalanche of public criticism and proceed with the industry’s

favored “no labeling, no safety-testing” policy. Underlining public

rejection of the FDA’s “Shut Up and Eat Your Frankenfoods” policy, 75%

of Americans stated in a poll released by the Pew Charitable Trust on

March 26 that they wanted mandatory labeling of all gene-altered

foods, with 58% saying they would not buy them.

Propaganda Barrage The North American mass media recently have spewed

out an unprecedented number of stories and fluff pieces on the wonders

of “bioengineering” and the willful arrogance of anti-biotech

Luddites. Even PBS, the Public Broadcasting System, supposedly the

most liberal TV network in the US, aired a biased two-hour special

program on April 24 called “Harvest of Fear,” which praised the

supposed virtues of genetically engineered crops (fewer pesticides,

better nutrition) and attacked activist and so-called “eco-terrorist”

groups for falsely maintaining that GE foods are unsafe. “Food

companies have learned that the [anti-genetic engineering] groups are

not intent on having a reasoned debate about biotech or helping

consumers find out about biotech,” stated Gene Grabowski of the

Grocery Manufacturers of America. “It seems that their motive is to

scare people.”

Suing Farmers Monsanto has now sued or threatened thousands of

farmers across the US and Canada for the “crime” of saving seeds or

for having the company’s patented Frankencrops growing on their land

without paying royalty fees. On March 29, in a troubling and likely

precedent-setting case, a Federal Court judge in Canada ruled that a

70 year-old, fifth generation Saskatchewan farmer, Percy Schmeiser,

was guilty of growing herbicide-resistant canola in 1998 on his farm

near Bruno, Saskatchewan without paying Monsanto. Schmeiser, now

liable for hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines to Monsanto,

claimed the seed for his crop came from his own fields, which were

contaminated by genetic drift from neighboring farms. According to a

Washington Post story filed on April 30, the Court ruled that

Schmeiser was liable for damages, even if he didn’t deliberately plant

the GE canola. Monsanto’s legal victory comes at a high cost however,

in terms of enraging the majority of the world’s farmers who are not

using genetically engineered seeds. A spokeswoman with the National

Farmers Union, which represents 300,000 small farmers and ranchers in

the United States, told the Post “the organization has been following

the Schmeiser case with apprehension. We’re extremely concerned by

what liabilities may unfold for the farmer, particularly with

cross-pollination of genetically modified plants.” The National

Farmers Union of Canada, where two-thirds of all canola acreage is

genetically engineered, has called for a moratorium on all GE crops.

Canada previously exported $400 million dollars of canola each year to

Europe. Now that market has been lost, due to EU rejection of GE

crops. Analysts warn that Canada may soon lose most of its canola

markets in Japan and Asia as well.

Manipulating Statistics Last spring BioDemocracy News reported on a

USDA survey that acreage of the two largest GE crops in the United

States was in decline (GE soybeans were down from 57% of all soy

planted in 1999 to 54% in 2000; corn was down from 25% to 19.5%).

Monsanto and the USDA had previously even claimed that the 1999

acreage of US corn was 33% GE-suggesting a massive decline in Bt and

herbicide-resistant corn varieties in 2000. But apparently after

hearing from Monsanto, Aventis, and Novartis (now Syngenta) that

projections like these were bad for their bottom line, the USDA

recently recalculated the figure for last year’s GE corn crop–now

claiming that GE corn constituted 25% of all corn acreage last year

and will amount to 24% this year. The USDA also maintains that GE soya

plantings will increase in 2001, even as global export markets shut

down. Before swallowing media stories that biotech is booming, it’s

important to keep in mind that current government or industry figures

on biotech crop acreage are all estimates, thereby subject to

manipulation. But in the wake of the StarLink debacle, which has

contaminated 10% of all the corn in storage in the US, you don’t need

a PhD to understand that a projected figure of 24% of all US corn

acreage in 2001 planted with Frankencorn is ridiculous. The real

figure will undoubtedly fall below 15%. Harder to conceal for the USDA

and the biotech industry is the fact that Monsanto has ceased

production of genetically engineered tomatoes (taken off the

commercial market in 1996) and potatoes (earlier this year), and that

global acreage of all genetically crops has leveled off. According to

the public interest group RAFI, , global “demand for GM

seeds almost flattened in 2000 with an increase of only 8% after years

of doubling and redoubling. Analysts predicted that, at least until

2003, demand would remain flat or decline.” Perhaps even more

significant, the two most important GE crops in the

pipeline–herbicide-resistant wheat and rice-may never even reach the

marketplace, due to global opposition.

Another big lie repeated ad nauseam by Monsanto since 1995–faithfully

regurgitated by the media–is that their genetically engineered

recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (now banned in every industrialized

country except for the US) is being injected into 30% of all US dairy

cows. Dairy farmers and analysts tell BioDemocracy News that the real

figure is closer to 10%. In 1998 Dow Jones reported that Monsanto was

anxious to sell rBGH to any company willing to take this product off

their hands. There were no takers, however– not surprising since

rBGH has been linked to increased cancer hazards as well as to an

increase in pus, bacteria, and antibiotic residues in rBGH-derived

milk and dairy products.

Fostering Fatalism The Gene Giants have been forced to change their

marketing and regulatory strategy over the past several years. Having

utterly failed to convince a significant number of consumers or

farmers around the world that genetically engineered foods and crops

are safe, “substantially equivalent,” or that they have any beneficial

characteristics whatsoever, the industry has adopted a new hard-line

attitude. Basically the chilling new message is that agricultural

biotechnology is inevitable, that genetically engineered crops, food

ingredients, and drift are everywhere, and that anyone who labels

their products as GE-free is lying. As former USDA Secretary Dan

Glickman stated on the PBS special, “Harvest of Fear” (4/24/01) “We

will not be able to stop this technology. Science will march forward.”

Or as John Wichtrich, a top Aventis executive, admitted to a Knight

Ridder news service reporter on March 19, “the food supply will never

be rid of the new strain of corn (StarLink) that the company

genetically engineered.” And since the genetic pollution caused by

hundreds of thousands of acres of this likely allergenic Bt corn will

be permanent, Wichtrich and Aventis have called “for a change in

federal regulations to allow some level of the engineered corn, known

as StarLink, in human food.” With former biotech lobbyists such as

Monsanto’s Linda Fisher occupying prominent roles in the Bush

administration. Aventis will very likely soon get their wish for an

“allowable limit” of genetic contamination.

In a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal on April 5, Scott

Kilman and Patricia Callahan report that many leading US natural food

brands with “GMO-Free” labels are contaminated with significant

quantities of genetically engineered ingredients. The WSJ tested

top-selling brands such as Yves, Health Valley, Hain’s, Clif Bar,

Whole Foods, White Wave, and Gerber-and found that they were all

contaminated with GE ingredients. As Frank Palantoni, chief executive

of the North American consumer-health businesses for Gerber parent

Novartis put it, “I don’t think anybody in the U.S. can guarantee

zero.” Gerber, the nation’s largest baby food manufacturer, announced

in 1999, under pressure from Greenpeace, that they were going GE-free.

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